Paul Hindemith died on December 28, 1963, so this month marks the 50th anniversary of his death. Two recorded collections of his music were released this past fall, both of which will provide the attentive listener with a valuable profile of this German-born composer, who left his country to escape Nazi persecution and eventually became one of Yale University’s best known teachers. Unfortunately, he fell out of favor shortly after his death, accused of not being “modern” enough (even if his modernism was responsible for being labeled “degenerate” by the Nazis). 50 years on we may be able to appreciate why he was neglected, but we can also discover much to listen for in his music.
One of the collections is the recent Naxos release entitled The Complete Piano Concertos. This is a bit of a misrepresentation, particularly since Hindemith tended to prefer relatively “generic” titles, such as “chamber music” or “concert music.” A more accurate title would be Music for Piano and Orchestra, recognizing that, for two of the selections, the orchestra is of chamber scale. The soloist is Idil Biret, and the Yale Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Toshiyuki Shimada. Hindemith would probably have appreciated that the orchestra is a student-run ensemble from “his” university.
The composition with the most interesting history in this collection is the concerto Hindemith wrote for Paul Wittgenstein in 1923. Wittgenstein had lost his right arm in the First World War. In the years following the war, he commissioned all of the leading composers he knew to write concertos that he could play with the left hand alone. The only concerto that gets very much attention today is the one written by Maurice Ravel. Many (if not most) of them did not even appeal very much to Wittgenstein, who never performed Hindemith’s contribution. However, because he retained the performance rights, it remained unknown until after the death of Wittgenstein’s wife in 2001, when it was found among her papers.
Hindemith was more interested in providing the left hand with interesting things to do, rather than giving Wittgenstein ample opportunities for virtuosic display. The result is a well-crafted composition, a description that, ultimately, holds for just about anything Hindemith ever wrote. One is particularly aware of the many ways in which the piano engages in exchanges with different sections and instruments of the orchestra. If there was a certain consistency to Hindemith’s melodic invention, he always managed to come up with interesting things for the performers to do.
The best known piece on this collection has the generic title “Theme with Four Variations.” However, each of the variations is named for one of the four temperaments. It became a ballet choreographed by George Balanchine, who called the ballet “The Four Temperaments.” With his impeccably astute sense of structure, Balanchine was a perfect match for Hindemith; and the choreography emerges as an abstract illustration of the many ways in which the piano interacts with the accompanying string orchestra, all within the framework of a set of variations.
Hindemith takes a different approach to variation in the final movement of the one piece he called “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra.” In this case the theme is the fourteenth-century estampie “Tre fontane” (three fountains). However, Hindemith saves it for the end of the movement, preceding it with a canzona, a march, a waltz, and a caprice before allowing the theme to play itself out with the full vigor of its secular medieval rhetoric.
In the chamber orchestra selections one can appreciate Hindemith’s innovative ear for instrumentation, which often compensates for his less interesting melodic content. The piece called simply “chamber music” is scored for twelve solo instruments, to which the piano is added. Hindemith wrote it for Hermann Scherchen, perhaps as a reflection on that conductor’s experience with Arnold Schoenberg’s approach to writing a “chamber symphony.” The “concert music” piece, on the other hand, takes a different approach through the contrasting sonorities of four horns, three trumpets, two trombones, tuba, two harps, and the piano; and the results are utterly fascinating.
Hindemith’s sensitivity to instrumentation is also the “main attraction” of the other collection, a Brilliant Classics box of five CDs called simply Orchestral Music. The performances involve a variety of different orchestras and conductors, but they are all skillfully executed. There are two selections likely to be familiar. The first is the symphony that Hindemith composed on themes from his opera about Matthias Grünewald, Mathis der Maler (Matthias the painter), each movement of which is associated with one of Grünewald’s creations. The second is the “Symphonic Metamorphosis after Themes by Carl Maria von Weber,” a series of witty distortions of some of Weber’s more banal salon music.
Hindemith’s sense of humor is also evident in the finale for his lesser known “Pittsburgh Symphony,” in which he revels in his newly-established American roots with a rousing account of the spiritual “This Train.” The collection also includes his two major works for viola and orchestra, “Trauermusik,” written in response to the death of George V, and “Der Schwanendreher” (the swan turner), which Hindemith called a “concerto from old folk songs.” There is also a delightful account of “Wir bauen eine Stadt” (we are building a city), a one-act opera for eight-year-olds.
There is much in both of these collections to revive interest in Hindemith’s music, making them both particularly appropriate for this anniversary month.